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Indigenous Advocacy Transformed the Fight Over Oil Drilling in the Arctic Refuge

Racial justice is now as much a part of the debate as environmentalism vs. oil drilling.

On Jan. 6, as insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, the Trump administration held the first lease sale of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The auction marked a historic moment in the decades-long battle over the refuge’s coastal plain, 1.5 million acres of tundra along the Beaufort Sea in northeastern Alaska. Yet the highly anticipated sale was a flop; major oil companies shied away, and most tracts went to an Alaskan state-funded corporation that doesn’t even own drilling equipment. Although large swaths have been auctioned off, whether this land will be drilled or protected remains uncertain.

The national media often describes the Arctic Refuge controversy as a story of wilderness versus oil, a conflict pitting environmentalists against the fossil fuel industry. But that overlooks the political advocacy of the Gwich’in Nation, whose communities reside across northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada. Since 1988, the Gwich’in have transformed the debate, turning it into a struggle for human rights and environmental justice. Their voices have been essential to keeping oil drills out of the Arctic Refuge.

In fighting against the colonial violence of fossil fuel development, the Gwich’in have engaged in a struggle infused with existential meaning: a push to hold onto their identities and cultural traditions, to honor their ancestors, to ensure a future for their children and subsequent generations, and to maintain sacred bonds with their surroundings, which have existed for millennia.

Like the rest of the state, the northeastern corner of Alaska had been stolen by Russia and then sold to the United States in 1867. By the 1950s, wilderness advocates began to describe this area as the nation’s “last great wilderness.” Upholding a vision of nature as a place apart from human society, they called on federal leaders to protect northeastern Alaska before it fell into the hands of extractive industry.

In 1960, the Eisenhower administration issued an executive order establishing what was then called the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Throughout the process of setting aside this land, though, neither activists nor U.S. political leaders bothered to consult with Indigenous communities, ultimately silencing the very people who had lived there for thousands of years. Ignoring Indigenous histories and lifeways, Eisenhower’s order promised to safeguard the area’s “unique wildlife, wilderness and recreation values.”

Twenty years later, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Among other provisions, ANILCA renamed the area a refuge and doubled its size to more than 19 million acres, making it the largest in the National Wildlife Refuge system. But there was a hitch — ANILCA left the coastal plain in legislative limbo, authorizing a future Congress to determine whether this expanse of land would be granted permanent wilderness status or be auctioned off to the oil industry. That compromise — a concession made to powerful Alaskan politicians and other drilling proponents — set in motion the epic battle that ensued.

Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, was hostile to wildlife protection and environmental regulation. Indeed, Reagan considered the coastal plain not as a landscape thriving with life to be protected in perpetuity, but as an economic storehouse, a repository of hydrocarbons to be reaped by the fossil fuel industry. His administration planned to turn the refuge into an oil field.

If fossil fuel development proceeded, it would have had dire consequences for the caribou that run through Gwich’in lands — caribou that give birth in the exact place targeted for oil drilling. According to Gwich’in leaders, destruction of the caribou calving grounds would amount to a form of cultural genocide. They urged their people to band together and oppose Arctic drilling.

In June 1988, members of the Gwich’in Nation traveled from far-flung communities to Arctic Village, 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, to respond to the urgent threat of Reagan’s drilling plan.

They knew that the refuge debate had been dominated by environmentalists and multinational energy corporations. Their voices had been marginalized, and it was time to make their concerns known, to explain how the drilling controversy was not just a question of wilderness versus oil.

It was the future of their communities, dotted across places now known as Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories; it was the thousands of years they had stewarded these lands; it was the massive herd of caribou they relied upon and cared for; it was their culture, identity and food security. It was a system of settler colonialism, fixated on short-term profits and unsustainable resource extraction, set against Indigenous ways of knowing the land, of relations with the caribou and other creatures that spanned the full sweep of Gwich’in time. They believed it was time to take action.

At the end of the 1988 gathering, Gwich’in leaders allied with environmentalists, but on their own terms. “We’re not fighting because that place looks beautiful,” Sarah James, one of the leaders, explained. “We’re fighting because our way of life depends on the land. In order for it to take care of us, we have to take care of the land in return.” They formed a new political advocacy group — the Gwich’in Steering Committee — to ensure that the voices of their people were no longer ignored.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee changed public perceptions of the Arctic Refuge. Even as environmentalists continued to celebrate this land as America’s “last great wilderness,” Gwich’in representatives helped non-Indigenous people understand the refuge differently — not as a faraway wilderness but as part of their ecological homeland. By reframing the refuge, the Gwich’in challenged a long colonial history of Indigenous exclusion and erasure from public lands. They turned a traditional wilderness battle into something else entirely: a fight for environmental justice.

Through grass-roots outreach in churches, public libraries, colleges and other venues, the Gwich’in galvanized diverse groups to voice their opposition to Arctic drilling in the legislative arena. Against the deep-pocketed fossil fuel lobby, the Gwich’in built allies across the continent and prevailed on Capitol Hill, sometimes by the narrowest of voting margins. For almost 30 years, that strategy succeeded.

But then, on December 22, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which included a provision to sell off the refuge’s coastal plain. This fulfilled a long-sought dream of the Alaska congressional delegation, whose members hope that the refuge might offer a new bounty of oil to pump into the trans-Alaska Pipeline.

The Gwich’in and other refuge defenders responded by carrying the fight into new realms, filing lawsuits against the Trump administration. They also launched a banking and corporate campaign — part of a larger fossil fuel divestment movement — to pressure oil companies and financial institutions not to invest in Arctic drilling.

Led by the Gwich’in and other Arctic Indigenous peoples, this divestment campaign proved to be a critical factor in steering Big Oil away from the lease sale. Within a short period, the Gwich’in persuaded all the major banks in the United States and Canada to pledge not to finance Arctic drilling. These victories, together with falling oil prices and the pandemic-induced global recession, led to the lackluster sale on Jan. 6. Had the auction happened years or decades earlier, the results would probably have been far different — and the refuge might today be covered with sprawling spiderwebs of pipelines and drilling facilities.

The way that Indigenous people transformed a traditional conservation campaign into an intersectional struggle for racial justice has implications far beyond the borders of Alaska. By protecting the caribou and their food security, the Gwich’in have also helped protect the planet’s biodiversity, safeguarding a place where species from across the continent and around the world migrate every year.

Many questions remain about the fate of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain — whether Congress and President Biden will be able to nullify the leases and overturn the tax act’s development provision; whether the courts will side with the Gwich’in and their environmental allies; whether the state of Alaska and oil companies will ever succeed in drilling this land.

But one thing is assured: The Gwich’in will continue their leadership and advocacy. Without their determination to defend this land and forge unlikely alliances, the entire history of the Arctic Refuge fight would be different. Because of the Gwich’in, the coastal plain continues to flourish as a critical biological nursery — and has not become an industrialized oil field.